Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
You can have Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, Littlefinger, Varys, Tyrion, the Queen of Thorns, all the weird Greyjoys, and the dead Freys too. Take ‘em all, march them to the Sept of Baelor, sprinkle Wildfire everywhere, and channel your inner Ted Cruz as you find out if you can make them glow. I won’t mourn them, Josh, because there is only man who truly deserves to sit on the Iron Throne.
That man is director Miguel Sapochnik.
I don’t care if I’m being reactionary—this was the best episode Game of Thrones has ever done. Sapochnik directed, of course, just like he directed the second- and third-best episodes ever, “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards.” Everything about the 67 minutes I just watched—the longest running time in Thrones history—was flawless. And if we don’t give this a perfect 10.0, we deserve to be executed by Lord Sapochnik, King of the Andals, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, Warden of Cameras, Maester of the Mise-en-Scène, etc. etc. I yield. I kneel.
Where to begin? I want to start with two brilliant shots that stick in my mind—brief moments that were hugely significant, and that he handled with incredible style.
1. The revelation of R+L=J.
We had to see the conclusion to the Tower of Joy scene—that was inevitable. But at the bedside, when Lyanna began whispering in Ned’s ear, I wondered if we might get cliffhung for another season. I haven’t re-watched the scene yet, but the most I could hear was, “he’ll kill him…you know he will,” and then something like, “you have to pretend.” Book readers know she’s talking about Robert Baratheon, who unlike Ned showed no hesitation in killing little Targaryen children who might one day grow up to contest his claim. And in Ned’s eyes, you could see the realization dawn; she was right.
Still, if you were watching without prior knowledge of the theory, the question hadn’t yet been answered. Then came the close-up of the baby’s face, and the cut to a beautiful, grim shot of Jon Snow as the violins rose, and my emotions reeled all over the goddam floor. I’m still gathering them up. This is one of those times when I half wish I could have been learning about Jon’s parentage for the first time, but the truth is that Sapochnik’s execution was so wonderful and chilling that my prior knowledge didn’t dampen the impact at all. This was exquisite.
2. Tommen’s suicide.
This was a simple move by Sapochnik—he just let the shot of the window linger, with the smoke and flames rising in the background, as Tommen removed his crown and walked off frame. I was puzzled, for a second, and then I understood exactly what was coming. There was nothing dramatic about the suicide—Tommen simply stepped up and fell forward. But his lack of expression was actually a smart piece of choreography, because the thought that rushed to my head at that moment was sort of like a small epiphany: Somehow, amid the cesspool of King’s Landing and his fucked up family, Tommen Baratheon was a kid with real integrity.
He was always that kid. Sure, he didn’t know how to rule, but even the smartest adults in that world don’t know how to rule. Every mistake he made was the result of trying to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t reward true spiritual nobility. But he tried anyway, even when it would have been easier to give in to darker impulses, of which there were many buried in his genes. He wanted to be godly, he wanted to be just, he wanted to be good. And he realized in his final moments that those desires had been corrupted, and that the better angels of his nature would never have their day. In his name, atrocities had been committed, and in that sense his suicide had an almost ethereal quality, like a sacrifice, or penance. If he had lived to come of age, he would have been a great king. I didn’t realize it until the moment of his death, but that final scene hammered it home: Tommen is one of the show’s great tragic figures.
I could go on and on. My wife is out of town this week, which is fortunate, because she always looks at me with a tender sort of repulsion when a TV show makes me cry. It’s probably because I don’t cry in real life, at things that should make me cry, but Hodor holding the door? Waterworks. In this episode, the scene with Daenerys naming Tyrion Hand of the Queen, with the badge she had made, hit me hard. It also made me realize that we could have used a lot more of these small, humanizing moments along the way with Dany—it would have invested us in her character more, and made her a little less boring.
We have seen far too many scenes with her giving the same rousing speech, or standing erect and silent with that icy stare as some something burns, and far too few indications of what she’s really like as a person, beneath the ambition and the destiny. In that light, this was spectacular, and Peter Dinklage’s look as she pinned the hand on his chest evoked everything he had lost in King’s Landing, and the ingratitude of his own family after the Blackwater. I can’t imagine there’s any human in the world more loyal to Daenerys than Tyrion is right now.
And of course, the entire opening at the Sept of Baelor had the kind of rising, creeping anxiety that we all remember from the Red Wedding. (How stunning was that room, by the way, with the shafts of light pouring in from the seven-pointed star window?) It was subtly played from the start, when the Sparrow—who, sorry fan theorists, is presumably not Howland Reed—had all the power, and slowly but surely a “Masque of the Red Death” terror began to grow as the pervading sense of doom built within the Sept. The Sparrow finally realized that Margaery was right, but it was too late—Qyburn’s little birds had Julius Caesar’ed Pycelle, and Lancel couldn’t crawl fast enough to put out the candles that sent the whole city up in flames.
So Cersei “won,” but of course a person like Cersei can never win—even when she sits on the Iron Throne. Her last child is gone, just as the witch’s prophecy said, and now all that remains is for a younger, more beautiful woman to replace her. She long assumed that woman was Margaery, but we, of course, now different: It’s Yara Greyjoy. Or maybe the little Mormont girl. Definitely someone.
In any case, the problem with Cersei is that she can’t just deal with life as the weird drama of shifting allegiances that it’s always been. Everything, to her, is personal. I think the show meant for us to get some second-hand pleasure from the torture of that annoying “SHAME!” woman, but all I could think was that Cersei’s inability to just kill her cleanly told us everything we need to know about her—she’s always been nuts, and her ambition isn’t tempered with the necessary tranquility.
Also: Jaime watching her on the Iron Throne after she torched the city had to feel pretty familiar, didn’t it? It’s interesting to think about the parallels, and what happened the last time he served a mad king.
I have to stop soon, because I could go on forever, but a few other thoughts for you:
1. From now on, I will assume that any character I haven’t seen before is Arya Stark, and that she (or he) is about to murder someone.
2. Bye Frey-licia!
3. The logistics of the face masks still hasn’t been explained to my satisfaction. Is it supposed to be magic, or what?
4. I wanted to say “Bye Frey-licia!” because I’m lame, but in all honesty, I will miss David Bradley. That guy was hilarious and so deliciously loathsome as Walder Frey. Ditto for Jonathan Pryce as the Sparrow—he was terrific, and I hope in the books he has a more interesting fate.
5. Finally, just for fun, I have to tip my cap to this scene:
Daenerys: I can’t take you with me to Westeros because there’s a gender double standard and people don’t want to think about their queen getting down with some lowborn dude, no matter how hot. You get to be in charge over here, though.
Daario: But I love you to the death! I insist on never leaving your side!
Daenerys: Think how many super hot chicks you’re going to bang as King of Meereen, though.
Daario considers for roughly 0.7 seconds
Daario: MUCH AS IT PAINS ME, I MUST PUT ASIDE LOVE FOR DUTY!
Classic Daario, of House Poonhound! He should have a spin-off with Bronn when this is all over.
Back to this episode being the best ever—my criteria is definitely arbitrary, but the amount of punch these 67 minutes packed without an epic battle is, I think, unmatched in the entire run of the series. We didn’t need an episode-long set piece like Hardhome or the Battle of the Bastards to take us on a visceral ride; “Winds of Winter” delivered on a physical, narrative, and emotional level, and it never flagged. No, forget that—”it never flagged” is defining it by a lack of negatives, and that doesn’t do it justice. It was pure inspiration from beginning to end, and it stands alone.
In short, Josh, this entire episode was a massive credit to the medium of television, and I can’t say enough about the quality. Tell me: Will you humble yourself before Lord Sapochnik? The gods’ judgment is fierce…but also fair. The warrior punishes those who believe themselves beyond the reach of justice. But the mother shows her mercy to those who kneel.
This episode was so packed with goodies, I couldn’t even guess which moments you were about name. The first that came to my mind was Daenerys pinning the Hand of the Queen badge on Tyrion—that literally got me fist-pumping both hands into the air. There are several point-of-view characters in the books, but both there and in the TV show, Tyrion stands out as our point-of-view character. Cynical enough to thrive in 2016, yet unexpectedly compassionate, and wise enough to understand the way the world around him works, his journey is the one I and countless other viewers identify with most. His journey, like many in this game, has been a shit-storm of misery, but not only has he found someone to believe in, he’s found someone who believes in him.
His last go-round as temporary Hand of the King was serving a dumb, evil king. But still, he served the kingdom as wisely and bravely as any man could. And yet it wasn’t enough to win approval from his father, who rejected him like he always had. Now he’ll get to deliver Westeros from the evil his family continues to rain upon the Seven Kingdoms. And you’re right. It was a wonderful humanizing moment for Daenerys, as well, especially as she confesses how little she felt in breaking things off with Daario. Her heart yearns only for the Iron Throne.
In that, she shares a common goal with Littlefinger. He lays bare his desires to Sansa in this episode, but she’s having none of it. He’s never looked shakier in all his planning and scheming than when all the families of the North stand up to declare for King Jon Snow instead of following his would-be bride, Sansa Stark. Much was made of Sansa’s mistake in not telling Jon about the Knights of the Vale coming to their aid, going so far as to call her stupid or evil. She owned that mistake this week (and it was a huge one that could have cost Jon his life), and Jon was exceptionally forgiving.
She wasn’t the only one Jon forgave this week. Melisandre got off with just a Southward exile for the crime of burning a sweet young girl alive. “If your god tells you to burn an innocent girl at the stake, then your god is evil!” said Ser Davos. And all the world said amen.
Jon Snow also forgave the northern leaders who didn’t come to his aid with a shrug that there was nothing to forgive. Lady Badass Mormont might disagree.
But back to your question, I think this is certainly the best finale the show has given us. It covered more plot lines than any episode that came before it, but none felt like they got short shrift. I’m not sure how we even pull that off in this review. Sam about to cry when he beholds the scope of the library in The Citadel (how awesome is The Citadel?). Jaime calling out the pettiness of Lord Frey like only someone related to Tyrion could do. Varys showing up in Dorne with Sandsnakes and a pissed-off Lady Olenna. Bronn saying, “Maybe I’m not in the mood” and then, of course being in the mood, even though he’s not happy that Jaime assumes that he’s in the mood. And of course, Daenerys standing with her hands on the bow of a ship heading to a new land. Any of those could have been the moments you were referring to that Sapochnik handled so deftly.
Is it the best episode ever? I don’t know. Game of Thrones has left me breathless a coupe of times, particularly where major battles have taken place. “Hardhome,” last week’s “Battle of the Bastards” and “Blackwater” all jump to mind. But I have no problem giving this episode a 10.0, so I guess I must be agreeing with you here.
But let’s talk about Jon Snow, born again, but his rebirth has been slow. He clearly was expecting Sansa to take her place as the Lady of Winterfell, but she can’t even begin to think about sleeping in her parent’s room. She’s grown into a strong and capable woman since leaving her home with dreams of being queen, but she’s been through too much to care about power and titles and Littlefinger’s scheming. She didn’t let Ramsay’s rape and torture break her, but neither did she come out unscathed. She can barely trust another human right now, and she’s got plenty of healing to do.
Jon is likewise having a hard time thinking he can lead. He’s been burned before as well, after fighting the same fight with his brothers of the Night’s Watch as he now has to do with the lords of the North. He started truly coming back to life while nearly getting trampled to death in the Battle of the Bastards, but that’s also going to be a longer process. He’s back in Winterfell where he was never really a part of his own family. He’s a Snow, but the families of the North who treated him as a bastard when he was a child are now proclaiming him King of the North, a title he never asked for and certainly never expected.
This now seems headed for a conventional ending with Daenarys and Jon uniting the Seven Kingdoms against Cersei. There’s not even much of a battle to be had there—the only real threat remains north of the Wall, where ancient magic holds it at bay. But this show has never been as much about clever twists and long cons as fan theories keep insisting upon. Hodor was a brilliant and patient reveal. But sometimes an Arya is just an Arya. A Sansa just has a hard time trusting. In other words, this isn’t Lost.
That’s why it was amazing to see Lyanna give her baby to Ned, even though we were 95% sure Jon Snow was her son. And why it was satisfying (though unsettling) to see Arya Stark avenge her mother and brother and all their bannermen (and no, that wasn’t Jaquen or the Waif pretending to be Arya pretending to be a serving girl). There are plenty of shocking surprises on the show, like the Red Wedding, but Game of Thrones’ joys are more about the perseverance of characters we’ve come to love through terrible struggles and the constant danger that they’ll be next off the chessboard than they are about novel plot twists.
Okay, so I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface of this episode, so I’ll kick it back to you. What did I miss?
One thing you mentioned that I want to talk about is Jon Snow releasing Melisandre. It’s possible to read too much into this moment, but am I crazy, or is this the first time a male Stark not named Bran has deviated from rigid thinking? Ned lost his life because he couldn’t understand that sometimes the “honorable” approach was not the smart approach, Robb lost his life because he was so ignorant about diplomacy that he thought it was fine to renege on the marriage vow that gave him a critical military advantage, and Rickon was such a rigid thinker that he ran rigidly in a straight line. Fluid thinkers prevail, as we’ve noted before, and even though it was never stated explicitly, I got the sense that Jon Snow understood on some level that Melisandre’s argument was more than just begging for life—she does have a role left to play in the fight against the Night King.
Why else would he let her leave, and refuse Davos’ justified request for her execution? You could make the argument that it’s life-for-life—she saved his, he spares hers. But I think on a deeper level, Jon understands that he’s going to need every man, woman, and child that he can get in the fight to come. Losing Melisandre, and pissing off the Red God in the process, is something that Ned or Robb would have done. But maybe, after dying once and nearly dying again after executing the world’s worst battle plan, Jon knows a little bit more than nothing. Maybe he’s beginning to understand the value of nuance, and the pitfalls of black-and-white labels for people who are neither absolute friends nor absolute enemies. He started to show that propensity by bringing the wildlings across the wall, but where that was a desperate act of necessity, this was an act of political calculation. It bodes well for his future.
I don’t have much to add on Sam, except this: Did you notice that the large spiraling gold structure in the Oldtown library looks very much like the thing in the opening credits that spins around the glowing sun? I didn’t either, but people on Reddit did, and the similarity is striking. My theory, based on nothing: This is something that can be used to kill dragons, but whose purpose has been lost to history.
Which is a nice segue into theories in general. You’re dead on—the few theories that have come true in Westeros, like R+L=J and the return of Benjen Stark as Coldhands and the fact that the Hound is still alive, lend an air of credence to just about any insane fan theory. Howland Reed as the High Sparrow was just one example, and I myself succumbed with the Arya Stark incident…though I still say her behavior made no sense and we were right to suspect something beneath the surface. Regardless, the flow of theories is endless and often insane, to the point that writing ridiculous and obviously false theories that can vaguely be supported by the text is a high art in certain rarefied circles of the ASOIAF literati.
My favorite from this genre is one which posits that Dany’s fetus from the Dothraki camp is actually Tyrion Lannister, who transported in time by Mirri Maz Duur’s blood magic to be implanted in Joanna Lannister, who then carried out the surrogate pregnancy to deliver Tyrion, and the baby originally in her womb dies, and then is transplanted back to be stillborn by Daenerys. After that, Tyrion will marry Daenerys (his mother) and gouge out his own eyes like Oediups. Seriously, please read it here. It’s outrageous, but to such an extent that you just kind of gaze in wonder.
The point is, theories are crazy and weird and mostly wrong, but also they’re kinda fun. Which is why I’ve tried to corner the market on the “if we didn’t see them die, they aren’t actually dead” theories. After tonight’s episode, we can add the Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Mace, Kevan Lannister, Lancel Lannister, Tommen, and thousands of King’s Landing residents to the list. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all alive. I mean, did you notice how blase Cersei was about seeing Tommen’s dead body? Clearly, the person she saw under that blanket was someone else.
One thing we haven’t talked about is Dorne. Olenna and Varys are reunited, which is awesome, and the Queen of Thorns insults the Sand Snakes, which is even more awesome. Every time we’ve seen Dorne in the past, I get the feeling that the writers really want us to like the Sand Snakes, and each time they’ve managed to fail harder. This time, they were just like, ehhh, fuck it, let’s let Olenna speak with the voice of the fans. And I’m great with that.
But now that Dorne, Theon/Yara, and Highgarden are on Dany’s side, who is left to oppose her in Westeros? By my count, it’s Cersei, Jaime, and whatever army they can assemble, Aeron’s one thousand ships (coming soon!), and maybe Jon’s 20 remaining wildlings and the Vale army. But those people all hate each other. This is quickly turning into Team Dany vs. Team Night King, and unless things drastically change, season six is going to be all about choosing sides. Let’s just hope Dany and the Night King don’t join forces, because they’d destroy all of Westeros in a pincer movement in approximately six hours.
As for Littlefinger, I’m going to post something later today about how he’s wayyyy dumber in the TV show than he is in the books, where he’s a cold-blooded calculating genius who never reveals his cards. Tonight just adds more fuel to the fire—he openly revealed his ambitions as pathetically as possible to Sansa, and then sulked like an angsty teen, in very conspicuous fashion, as the northerners rose for Jon Snow. He might as well wear a sign that says, “I’m super dangerous!” Luckily, he’s among Starks, who have a long and storied habit of not recognizing even the most obvious threats.
We should also note here that the only reason Jaime Lannister isn’t dead right now is because he won’t have sex with anyone but his sister. Nice try, Arya, but you’re going to need a really accurate Cersei mask to get that scalp.
I don’t want to admit it to myself, Josh, but our letters are coming to an end for another year. This is always the saddest day. I’ll leave you with a few questions for the future, and console myself with the fact that we still have two seasons to go.
1. Where do you rate season six? I thought it started and closes spectacularly, with some rough, slow patches in the middle, but overall I put it near the top.
2. Is Bran going to undo the magic of the wall the minute he crosses over, since the Night King touched him in his vision?
3. Give me your three favorite potential husbands for Daenerys, and your three least favorite. Personally, I’m just sad we’ll never get to see her marry Mace Tyrell. I think he would have been perfect. (That was a test—as mentioned before, I obviously don’t believe Mace the Ace is really dead.)
4. I’m having trouble imagining what roles certain peripheral characters will playing going forward. Any guesses on the Theons, Samwells, Hounds, and Briennes of the world?
5. Will we ever see Gendry again?
6. Who is the ultimate “fail upward” character in this universe? There’s a great argument to be made for Jon Snow, Davos, Melisandre, and Dany, with Sansa as a dark horse. These are people who never really seem to succeed at anything, and they make lots of dumb choices, but somehow always end up in better positions than where they started.
I can’t play out this string any longer, Josh. It’s time to kick it over to you, with sadness in my heart, and a thanks to you for doing this every week and to the readers for having our backs.
I was on such a high after last night’s episode, and this morning, I’m brought low with the realization that for some 40-odd weeks there’s no more Game of Thrones. You know what would make that wait better? Winds of Effing Winter.
But now isn’t the time for complaining. That was a perfect ending to one of the best seasons of Game of Thrones we’ve had. Was it the best? I re-watched the five previous seasons before Season 6 started this year. Here’s how I’d rank them all, counting down to the best:
Season 2 – Biggest moments: Arya Stark escapes Harrenhall with the help of Jaqen H’ghar, Melisandre’s shadow demon baby assassinates Renly Baratheon, Theon sacks Winterfell, Tyrion fights in the Battle of the Blackwater, Jon gets captured by the Wildlings. Verdict: The War of the Five Kings takes shape and all of Robb’s younger siblings struggle for survival. The Battle of the Blackwater proved that the show’s fight scenes are as good as anything on TV or even big-budget Hollywood movies.
Season 3 – Biggest moments: Samwell escapes the army of the White Walkers, Jon falls in love with Ygritte, Daenarys trades a dragon for an army and then kills the Masters, Jaime loses a hand, a wedding gets bloody. Verdict: The Ramsay/Theon torture porn grew unbearable, but the Red Wedding gave the show its biggest water-cooler moment.
Season 4 – Biggest moments: King Joffrey is poisoned, The Mountain fights the Viper in Tyrion’s trial by combat, the Wildlings attack Castle Black, Tyrion kills his father and Shae. Verdict: Arya and the Hound is a glorious season-long pairing, Tyrion’s plight is heart-breaking and the fight at Castle Black is epic.
Season 5 – Biggest moments: Mance Rayder is burned alive, Arya begins training in Braavos, The High Sparrow forces Cersei to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing, Stannis sacrifices his daughter to appease the Red God, Jon fights the White Walkers in Hardhome, Jon’s fellow Crows stab him to death. Verdict: Jon becomes the hero of GoT only to be betrayed by his brothers, and the paths of Tyrion and Daenarys finally converge in Essos, turning one of the more boring plot lines into one of the most interesting.
Season 1 – Biggest moments: Tyrion narrowly escaping a trip through the Moon Door, Drogo pouring molten gold onto Viserys head, Joffrey executes Ned Stark (the first of many shocking deaths on the show) and Daenerys is reborn in the fire as the Mother of Dragons. Verdict: Where it all began. David O’Reilly and D.B. Weiss turned George R.R. Martin’s books into a fantasy show for people who don’t like fantasy shows.
Season 6 – Biggest moments: The Hound returns! Jon is resurrected! Hodor! Dragon battle! Arya vs. the Waif! The Battle of the Bastards! Everything last night! Verdict: The herd of characters has been thinned, and the plot has been racing forward. You talked about lulls in the middle of the season, but they were comparatively short. We’ve had amazing character pairings, devastating heartbreak, an incredible battle, and countless little moments to savor. Yes, it’s the best season yet.
Something has to happen for the Night King to begin marching South, and it may be Bran that brings the Wall crumbling down—I don’t know. The Starks have long known that Winter is coming, and now it’s here.
As for my top picks for a husband for Daenerys, I’m going to give you five I like and one I don’t:
1. Jon Snow, the obvious but awesome choice.
2. Tyrion Lannister, the crowd favorite.
3. Yara Greyjoy, open to anything.
4. Ser Bronn, also open to anything.
5. Jaime Lannister, who I heard has a thing for blondes.
My least favorite:
1. Littlefinger, the smarmy bastard. Please don’t do that to us.
Here are the happy endings I’d give to the beloved supporting cast:
Theon studies under Varys as apprentice to the Master of Whispers and learns how to be an awesome eunich.
Samwell and family follow Jon and Daenerys to King’s Landing where he becomes Grand Maester after smothering Qyburn to death.
The Hound follows the Brothers Without Banners into battle against the White Walkers. The Red God makes him impervious to fire.
Brienne falls in love Tormund, returns to the Sapphire Isles, raises beautiful giant children and kicks ass in the new tournament event: mixed doubles.
And finally, the ultimate falling up character will be Gendry, who grew up in Flea Bottom but will take over as Lord of Storm’s End since all other Baratheons are now dead.
Of course, those are all happy endings, so none are likely to come to pass. All of the above characters will probably die gruesome deaths at the hands of White Walkers or will be betrayed by allies. Sorry.
But we have until next April to hold out hope for everyone who’s miraculously survived the brilliant, cruel pen of George R.R. Martin thus far.
Please don’t die, good Ser Martin.
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